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On 'Sleepy Hollow' and Nicole Beharie's "Abbie Mills" Saving the World

by Vanessa Martinez
October 7, 2013 7:00 PM
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Sleepy Hollow Nicole Beharie still

Sleepy Hollow - from co-creators/executive producers Alex Kurtzman and Roberto Orci (Star Trek, Transformers, Fringe) - a fantastical, supernatural, improbable and ludicrously entertaining new hit Fox series, which has already been renewed for a second season, follows Ichabod Crane in the retelling of Washington Irving’s classic tale. 

But what’s exciting and fascinating to many of us is that the character of Abbie Mills, played by Nicole Beharie, is not just another African American actor in a supporting role. She is, in fact, at the lead. Aside from that, Beharie’s Mills, a lieutenant in the town of Sleepy Hollow, is destined for greatness. she has been chosen by the book of revelation - and the grace of God if you will - to join Ichabod Crane (Tom Mison) in stopping the four horsemen of the apocalypse and battle numerous demonic and evil forces in the process. In other words, Lieutenant Mills is instrumental in saving the modern world, as we now know it.

Beharie, as usual, delivers a certain air of sophistication, grace and maturity to Abbie Mills. She’s also relatable and wholly convincing as a well-grounded deputy who is skeptic of the supernatural forces she’s fighting against. We know Abbie has a sister named Jenny, played by Lyndie Greenwood (CW’s Nikita), who’s in a psychiatric ward. They were both foster children growing up, and after Abbie denies having witnessing the demon in the woods while they were children, Abbie succumbs to a life of petty crimes and drugs before she’s given another chance by her late partner - who's head was severed by the headless horseman - Sheriff Corbin. 

She’s certainly a strong, resilient and courageous woman, but I wonder how much of those traits could possibly trap her character into the “strong black woman” stereotype as the season goes on. One could ponder upon the aforementioned archetype. We could also take into consideration Abbie’s sister Jenny, who is also another tough black woman. Are the black female characters too strong? Too independent? Not vulnerable enough? While certainly “strong minded” leads of color are appreciated, and, given the premise of the show – required - Abbie hasn’t quite cracked under the insurmountable pressure yet, at least to the extent that such a situation in real life would warrant. 

When developing Abbie Mills character, it may also be a matter of “damn if you do and damn if you don’t.” Beharie's Abbie has been effectively emotive in several scenes, especially those that regard grieving Sheriff Corbin, who's a sort of paternal figure for her. And, if Ichabod Crane protected her and came to her rescue too much because, well… she’s emotionally fragile; she needs comfort and “someone to make her feel good;” because she’s a cute and petite lady under too much stress who needs to be shielded from this ugly world, then…. Abbie is just a damsel in distress; she’s just “the girlfriend” and a white man’s “side-piece;” cries about holy sexism and white patriarchy will abound. 

After all, there’s no crying while trying to save world. Ain’t nobody got time for that! Which, by the way, I’m glad to note she hasn’t veered into “sassy black woman” territory, although there is plenty of spunk and clever banter between Abbie and Ichabod, which are some of the most compelling aspects of this show. It’s only three episodes in and still early in the season, which is shaping up to be more of a fun, must-suspend-belief supernatural/horror/thriller adventure than an intricate character study/drama, and we may be looking too much into it. To the writers credit however, her character, and Jenny’s, hint of more complexity to come, and more of a mysterious past yet to be unveiled. 

There’s also the possible romantic storyline between Ichabod and Abbie. Debate on the TV’s politics of interracial casting aside, one has to wonder if Abbie, an impossibly beautiful and charming young woman, will indeed be involved in some sort of romantic liaison, whether with Ichabod or another character; it’s only human right? A quick search on tumblr with the #sleepyhollow #abbiemills tags, and you will find plenty of fans of the show “shipping” “Ichabbie.” Producers are holding off on such a predicament, and intelligently so. The factor of romantic tension will keep viewers tuning in week after week. 

Sleepy Hollow has incorporated characters of several ethnic backgrounds so far to include an African American sheriff’s office captain (Orlando Jones), an Asian deputy-now-turned-demon played by John Cho, a modern-day Native American Shaman (Michael Teh) and a Latino ex-boyfriend (Nicholas Gonzalez). Producers seem very well conscious of diversity in TV casting. And although one could argue the issue of “tokenism,” the show’s characters so far, or a few of them, seem to be part of a greater universal scheme, within a historical context. 

Take the “Shaman” character for instance in the last episode, who had the tools from his Native American forbearers to be tap into the spirit world to confront the Sandman. Or the victim in the second episode titled “Blood Moon,” who was the descendant of a magistrate who oversaw an evil witch’s burning over two centuries ago; his ashes would bring her back to life. 

There is an underlying theme in the show of the foundation of this country: the revolutionary war, Ichabod Crane and his fight for Independence, his support for Native Americans and for the abolition of slavery. One can’t help to wonder, how does Abbie Mills fit into this historical timeline? Is she the descendant of a pivotal - and black of course - historical figure? 

There are countless and very intriguing possibilities that the show could tap into. However, so far, there’s something to be said about the diversity in casting for the show. Kudos to Sleepy Hollow’s creators for incorporating influential characters of color, who are often ignored in the media; their efforts to not only include them, but to and make them culturally relevant in the modern fabric of this nation and give them due credit for its foundation, are nothing short admirable, even if overdue. 

 Have you been watching the show? Thoughts on representation?

Sleepy Hollow comes on tonight on Fox at 8/9e.

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  • Poppy Jones | October 18, 2013 6:25 PMReply

    I'm an African American woman and I absolutely love the show-I never miss it. Can't wait to see what happens next.

  • Belle | October 11, 2013 1:55 AMReply

    While it's been nice in the last few years to see more and more women as leads in a law enforcement environment, it's almost ridiculous how many of them have been blonde. I love Fringe's Olivia, but there was a time when I was watching three or four shows that all involved a blond law enforcement type as one of the stars. I am SO over the blonde cop. I love Abbie, and I love that the show is doing something different. There is a whole range of hair colors, skin colors, backgrounds, etc, let's start using a few more of them.

  • Phred G | October 12, 2013 3:30 AM

    Good point. Love Jane Rizzoli and loved (sad she's gone) Ziva David.

  • Tamara | October 9, 2013 11:19 AMReply

    I feel Abbie and Jenny's timeline should be exposed. They mention their father cut out of the scene when they were young and shortly after the mother went crazy. This latest episode Abbie told her sis, "we're all the family we've got", so I hope that there is more to them and their place in the history of everything than just two girls who saw a demon and lived to tell the tale ... and fight against the forces of eeevil, etc. etc.

    Ichabod is too obsessed with Katrina and her being trapped between worlds to look on Abbie as anything other than "lieutenant mills"/partner in supernatural investigation. Shippers are expected but I think these two having a "friendship" is at most what will/should happen.

    As for Abby or Jenny being two "skrong" black womens, well, they are equally "strong", fearless, fearful, doubtful, vunerable at times, etc. etc. They are who I'd expect them to be after having gone through what they've gone through and I love it.

  • betty | October 9, 2013 9:36 AMReply

    I forgot to add that the writers twist themselves in knots to make Abbie and her sister strong enough to deal with the baddies. In episode 4 when the 2 sisters and Ichabod turned up at the church. The two women went in and dealt with the baddies but there was no sign of Ichabod for ages. Which made no sense given that he'd arrived with them. What did he decide to do - go to the restroom! He was clearly left out to give the two women a strong scene but all it did was highlight poor scriptwriting.

  • Betty | October 9, 2013 9:31 AMReply

    Personally I'd like to finally see the back story of Ichabod and Katrina. The poor actress playing Katrina is in the titles but we've hardly seen her in 4 episodes. I love Ichabod and Abbie's scenes but episode 4 with the two sisters did veer off a bit into soapland. I think its about time we see why Katrina's actually in the credits!! The writers have gone too far the other way to build up Abbie's backstory but totally ignored Ichabod/Katrina's. I've seen a number of online comments saying the same thing so I know I;m not alone with that criticism.

  • slice | October 15, 2013 3:33 PM

    Ichabod's spouse has actually been in practically every episode so far---she's only given short scenes, but she's usually been the one to brief him on every evil supernatural happening that's gonna go down,like which one of the 4 Horsemen is going to come rolling through Sleepy Hollow and what kind of mayhem they're gonna cause. Plus their story was explained in the first episode (I think, because I missed that one,dang it.)

    But,yeah, it's great to see a sister in the leading role for a change-- I got tired of seeing just blond white female cops in dang near every lead show (or dang near every show on TV, for that matter.) Plus I've liked Nicole Beharie since seeing her in her debut, AMERICAN VIOLET (good indie drama worth checking out) and it's been cool to see her every week. Like the show so far---it would be cool if they tried a storyline having to do with slavery from Ichabod's era. Now that would really be interesting, because it's cool to see how they fit actual historical happenings into the plot so far---like this week's show on the real-life vanished Roanoke colony of settlers.

  • Akimbo | October 9, 2013 10:44 AM

    Ew. I didn't even know his wife was a series regular. If she is, it's probably 7/10 or 10/13, definitely not an "all-shows produced" regular. I don't care about her at all. Are the same people clamoring for more backstory on Abby's ex-boyfriend? Or is it just that the wife's a busty redhead?

    I'd actually like to know more about John Cho's character.

  • Tina | October 8, 2013 6:18 PMReply

    Very good show. I also think the writers are being very smart in their presentation of Abbie. No she isn't a stereotype of a 'strong black woman' but rather she is a capable lieutenant who has a badge, carries a gun and is smart enough to qualify to be a accepted in to Quantico to be a profiler in the FBI. She is also conflicted and vulnerable. She has a complicated relationship with her sister and an over-developed sense of responsibility and guilt. Also, Abbie has saved herself time and time again. She and Crane are presented as partners. He has assisted her several times. In fact she has saved him more than he's saved her. Given that these are the same writers who crafted the Olivia character in Fringe, I have a lot of confidence they will also do right by Abbie.

    I also think possible thoughts of 'tokenism' are misplaced given the fact that two of the four regulars are black, and 3 of the 4 recurring characters are POC. If any character has been marginalized so far it is Crane's wife. She's been MIA for the last two episodes.

    All in all, the show is fun. It is a hodgepodge of real history, faux history, movie tropes, mysticism, magic, religion and folkore. And it gives more than a passing nod to the X- files (Abbie and Crane are a new age Mulder & Scully) with a little bit of Buffy the Vampire Slayer thrown in (they have a Lair of Knowledge!). Also the dialogue is snarky and quick with both Abbie and Crane getting their zingers in.

  • Akimbo | October 8, 2013 4:18 PMReply

    I really, really want to like this show, but the dialogue the opposite of good.

  • OneBolt | October 8, 2013 1:22 PMReply

    The show rocks. The characters and dialogue are well written. Nicole and Lyndie absolutely nail it. It also doesn't hurt that they are both stunningly beautiful either. Tom is well cast and plays his role to near perfection as well.

    It's the first new show to completely hook me in several years. I hope that the high level of quality I've seen so far continues.

  • Cj | October 8, 2013 12:27 PMReply

    I never comment, but I've watched every episode in support of Nicole Beharie. I enjoy the show, I think they always wrap up the final act a little too quickly however this show excels where Grimm fails. Thanks for this write up & I'm really proud of the job Nicole has been doing

  • Phred G | October 8, 2013 4:32 PM

    TOTALLY enjoying the show, my love for NicoleB is just a perk. I think she has GREAT chem with the rest of the cast. I'm glad Jenny has come out-of-the-shadows and be a contributing member in the 'fight'. They make a good trio of 'believers'. I enjoy the writing also (Abbie's "PLEASE!" while driving the car had me rolling). I also agree that Ichabod and Abbie will be more effective w/o having any "MOONLIGHTING" moments (killed that show imo). While their 'fight against the forces of evil/darkness/Hessians etc' is a good plot basis, a few semi-cliffhanger eps wouldn't hurt. My only complaint is the length of the beginning of each ep. FIRST comes the 'historical exposition' . . . THEN comes the "Previously on" . . . FINALLY ending up at the Opening Credits. Hopefully they can reduce this in the future. ijs

  • saadiyah | October 8, 2013 3:14 PM

    "they always wrap up the final act a little too quickly ..." THIS. I thought about this last night as I was watching. There's a huge buildup, a couple minutes of scary effects and drama, then all of a sudden it's resolved. Some of those plot points could carry over into the next episode so that the current epi ends on a more suspenseful note!

  • Alias | October 8, 2013 12:25 PMReply

    I LOVE the show! It is a breath of fresh air to have a woman who happens to be black given such a meaty lead role. And last night's episode, with her sister, was solid. I do hope, however, that Abby and Ichabod don't have a love thing. And I don't believe the creators will ever go down that road. For one, Ichabod is MARRIED!!!! So what, you say? Well, his wife Catrina, played by actress Katia Winter is still in the picture (albeit living in another dimension of time and space). And both Abby and Crane seem to try and hold themselves to higher moral standards than most mortals. And it would be too cliche and obvious to have the relationship go there. ... If anything, I could see Crane and Jenny, possibly, coming close to or having a tryst. And that would be far more interesting plot device, since he never doubted what she saw in the woods as a little girl.

  • YOUR TV STEALER | October 8, 2013 11:53 AMReply

    Where did you get supporting? She's the LEAD.

  • Vanessa Martinez | October 8, 2013 12:10 PM

    I meant that she isn't another African American actor in a supporting role, because she isn't in a supporting role. I added that "she is, in fact, at the lead" to avoid confusion.

  • Walter Harris Gavin | October 7, 2013 11:41 PMReply

    I've watched it a couple of times. Just can't get with it. The "bastardization" of the Sleepy Hollow story adding the "Revelations," end of the world thing, doesn't work for me in this context. Read my book The Autobiography of Obsidian Dumar, if you want to see how it's done. :)

  • Carl | October 8, 2013 2:07 AM

    You lost all credibility through your shameless, pathetic plug. Screw your book, you're a hater.

  • SleepyHead4Life | October 7, 2013 9:23 PMReply

    Your concerns have validity but so far are unfounded. If you've been watching the show, Abbie has shown many moments of vulnerability - including shedding a few tears at her partner's funeral. She can handle herself, but she's been protected by Ichabod in last week's episode. If you have spent more than a cursory glance at most of the Tumblr sites dedicated to the show for example - around 50+ which is a lot for a show that debuted a month ago - then there's a LOT of nuanced discussion about what a breath of fresh air it is to have such an engaging and three-dimensional character in an African American female lead. She is a LEAD, not a supporting character. Have you read Orlando Jones' Tweets and Tumblr posts? Have you read one of the show's creators encourage a future Ichabbie pairing? Do you actually WATCH this show??? Many of these questions have already been addressed. Abbie is a fully-fleshed out character with friends and family. Unless the creators of the show are planning on cannibalizing it and her character, so far so good for an excellent portrayal. Many are following and analyzing closely along where our support of this show is based on the continued great storylines and character development.

  • UmOk | October 8, 2013 12:11 PM

    for life though? There have only been 3 episodes...

  • Vanessa Martinez | October 7, 2013 9:34 PM

    @sleepyhead4life - The better question is ...did you read the piece thoroughly or just skim through it? Going by your comment, it looks like the latter. I'm very much a supporter of this show and its characters, especially Abbie.

  • Bforreal | October 7, 2013 7:56 PMReply

    I didn't like it at first, and I still wish they'd do away with the religious mess. But I have been watching every episode, and I do look forward to it on Mondays. The chemistry between the two leads is pretty amazing. I think it's a good show. I think it would've been a great show on FX or AMC.

  • Garveyism | October 7, 2013 7:16 PMReply

    I have been watching the show for the past three weeks and have completely enjoyed the chemistry between the two leading characters. This is by far my favorite show on television right now next to the avengers series. I tune in every Monday night and enjoy each and every episode. Definitely will tune in.

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